Visual Encoding of Social Cues Contributes to Moral Reasoning in Autism Spectrum Disorder: An Eye-Tracking Study

Front Hum Neurosci. 2018 Oct 15;12:409. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2018.00409. eCollection 2018.


Eye-tracking studies suggest that visual encoding is important for social processes such as socio-moral reasoning. Alterations to the visual encoding of faces, for example, have been linked to the social phenotype of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) and are associated with social and communication impairments. Yet, people with ASD often perform similarly to neurotypical participants on measures of moral reasoning, supporting the hypothesis of differential mechanisms of moral reasoning in ASD. The objective of this study was to document visual encoding and moral reasoning in ASD and neurotypical individuals using a visual, ecological, sociomoral reasoning paradigm paired with eye-tracking. Two groups (ASD, Control) matched for age and IQ completed the SoMoral task, a set of picture situations describing everyday moral dilemmas, while their eye movements and pupil dilation were recorded. Moral understanding, decision-making, and justification were recorded. Participants with ASD presented a longer time to first fixation on faces. They also understood fewer dilemmas and produced fewer socially adaptive responses. Despite a similar average level of moral maturity, the justifications produced by participants with ASD were not distributed in the same way as the neurotypical participants. Visual encoding was a significant predictor of moral decision-making and moral justification for both groups. The results are discussed in the context of alternative mechanisms of moral reasoning in ASD.

Keywords: autism spectrum disorder; eye-tracking; moral decision-making; moral reasoning; pupillometry; visual encoding.